Hello, and welcome back to Football Manager Ambition. In today's Tactics School, there's a bit of a treat for you with a detailed examination of fullback and wingback roles in real life football and in Football Manager.
You'll also find our usual Great Football Manager Quote, this time from the inimitable Ian Holloway.
There's also an Progress Report on the Football Manager Ambition save, including the comedy that is #Fullergate.
And just for a groan, there's Football Manager Problems.
Have a good read!
GREAT FOOTBALL MANAGER QUOTES
"Apparently, it's my fault that the Titanic sank."
~Ian Holloway knows the buck stops with him.
FOOTBALL MANAGER PROBLEMS
Football Manager is a great game. But sometimes, something crops up that makes you think, Why tho? How can this cock up be built into the game? Here's something that cropped up on my game recently...
My central midfielder Bradley Harrison had been unhappy for weeks. Why? Because I made a bid to sign Dele Alli from Real Madrid. Harrison thought he was going to be replaced. I had a private chat with him to explain that he wasn't going to be replaced, but he kicked off, and went into a dark green unh icon sulk. Then this happened...
A good resolution, yeah? Except for one thing.
I never signed Dele Alli. He went to Chelsea. There's quite a distance between Sheffield and Chelsea, so I'm not sure how Harrison was affected by Alli's "presence". But there you go. That's just one of those funny little Football Manager Problems. Sigh.
Okay, before we move onto the latest, rather epic, Tactics School, I'm just going to leave this here for our regular visitors...
Today in Tactics School, we’re going to be delving far into one of the murkiest areas of football tactics: wide defenders. In other words, full backs and wing backs. Or should that be full-backs and wing-backs? Or maybe fullbacks and wingbacks?
Right from the kick off, I’m going to make two very bold statements about wide defenders.
Firstly, there is more confusion, complexity and misunderstanding over wide defenders than any other role in football.
Secondly, the decisions made by managers and coaches over how to deploy wide defenders (players with starting positions in deep or defensive wide areas) have a greater impact on tactical outcomes than any decisions made about any other positions or roles. Yes, it’s that important.
This discussion is going to start by looking at the issues IRL (In Real Life), and we’ll add bits about the impact and issues on Football Manager as we go.
I’ll try to get things off to a clear start by pointing out that there is a difference between positions and roles in football. There are many centre forwards, but some play as target men, and others play, for example, as false nines. My initial discussion about wide defenders is going to be talking about positions, not roles (we’ll move on to roles later) and you’re going to need to bear that in mind.
Okay, so to really understand what’s going on with wide defenders (I’m going to keep using that term because it’s quicker than ‘fullbacks and wingbacks’), we need to understand how football formations have evolved. It’s neither possible nor practical for me to go through every single formation in football, so I’m going to keep it brief and focus on the main formation changes that have moulded the wide defender positions.
To start with, we have to go right back to the 1890’s, and the 2-3-5 formation. As you’ll see from the graphic below, in this formation, fullbacks were more like today’s central defenders. The bias in this formation, which was the standard for a long time, was on the attacking positions, and only the wingers patrolled the wide areas. Note the three halfback positions; left-half, right-half and centre-half, which were very similar to today’s defensive midfielder positions.
The 2-3-5 formation eventually reached the end of the road, although I believe I’m right in saying that in the early 1990’s, Bobby Gould made an attempt to reintroduce this formation (or something like it) for his Coventry City side, with striker Peter Ndlovu playing in a wing position. This resulted in one TV pundit saying that Ndlovu was playing as a wingback. I’d be interested in hearing from any Coventry fans that can confirm or debunk this.
Anyway, there were many variations on the formations in which fullbacks were at the centre of defence, but the next big change to really impact the fullback position was the relocation of halfbacks into the centre of defence, which moved the fullbacks into their modern wide areas. This was used in a number of formations, for example England’s ‘wingless wonders’ which used a 4-3-3 plan, then there was a commonly used 4-2-4, and also the formation that for many years became the standard in English football, the 4-4-2:
It was the advent of 4-4-2 that led to fullbacks being allowed to roam into attack, and while football pundits would have you believe that 4-4-2 through many years was quite a rigidly structured formation, the truth was that IRL, a 4-4-2 in action usually looked something like this:
The George Graham Arsenal team that employed Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon as fullbacks were great exponents of attacking fullback play, and working the overlap, in which the attacking fullback runs past the midfield into high wide areas. This side also began to experiment with having the wide midfielders / wingers (another debate for another blog) cutting inside to drag the opposition defence out of shape, leaving room for Dixon and Winterburn to run into.
The team I support, Sheffield Wednesday, had a great side in the early 1990’s that employed Roland Nilsson as a superb attacking fullback.
Also in the late 80's - early 90’s, when Liverpool started to wobble and eventually decline under Kenny Dalglish, the scot was criticised by many for what was supposed to be a very negative formation he tried out, with five at the back. However, the truth was Dalglish was actually experimenting with a formation that would allow his fullbacks to get forward even though he had started to lose confidence in his central defenders. More often than not, it was three at the back, with Steve Nicol playing in the centre of defence. Nicol had played a lot of games at fullback. Dalglish was probably a bit ahead of his time with this, as the idea of repositioning a player who is recognised as a fullback into a three-man central defence is something that works really well against inferior opposition, when the central defenders are expected to step up into midfield with the ball. This was notably used recently for England by Gareth Southgate putting fullback Kyle Walker into a three-man central defence.
It was probably formations with three-man central defences, pushing fullbacks forward, that led to the notion of wingbacks entering the collective consciousness of football fans. As had been experimented with by Arsenal (albeit with a two-man central defence) and on the continent with three-man central defences, pushing fullbacks forward encourages wide midfielders / wingers to cut inside, and eventually be given a narrower starting position.
The word wingback is a portmanteau of winger and fullback, and the whole point of this nomenclature is that the wingback is the only wide player on that side of his team’s wide areas. He has no midfielder or winger directly in front of him, and no wide defender behind him. As such, the wingback is the only position / role on a football pitch that depends of the position of other players for its definition! A fullback or wide midfielder should only be referred to as a wingback if there is no support player with a starting position directly in front of or behind him! Unfortunately, this situation has been grossly confused, mainly by pundits (often knowledgeable pros or ex-pros) who haven’t grasped this concept. It’s led to a situation in which any fullback who is great at getting forward is often referred to as a wingback even if there is a wide midfielder / winger in front of him. Even Football Manager allows you to select the role of wingback or ‘complete wingback’ for a wide defender in a formation that also deploys wide midfielders or wingers.
Most formations that properly use a wingback look something like these:
Note the designation of inside forward for the two attacking players supporting the centre forward in the above formations.
IRL, for all intents and purposes in current football, there’s not a huge amount of difference between an inside forward and a so-called inverted winger. They are like wingers, but sit a little narrower, to allow space for onrushing wide defenders. However, in Football Manager, if you deploy a player into that area of the pitch, you are forced into counting it as one of the attacking midfield positions. If you want to designate a player as an inside forward or inverted winger, you have to position that player on the tactics screen in a fully wide position, which simply does not reflect most real life tactical plans.
In other words, in the current iteration of Football Manager (FM18), to deploy an inside forward, you have to put that player contrarily wide:
Of course, there are many variants of the wingback system using true wingbacks, and some of them have very deep starting positions for the wide defender. But that doesn’t mean they have to be designated as a fullback just because they start deep. I repeat, IRL, to be true to the definition, a wide player is a wingback when there is no wide player in support either directly in front of or behind the player - regardless of how deep or high the wingback takes up his starting position.
Football Manager, as we have seen, does away with these conventions completely. Regardless of how you structure your midfield, you can designate a wide defender as a fullback or wingback (or indeed, a defensive fullback, complete wingback, or inverted fullback). The designation and description of complete wingback in FM is particularly odd, as it seems to be anything other than complete. According to the game, a complete wingback is capable of defending, but his natural inclination is to attack. That seems limited, rather than compete to me. I would expect someone described as a complete wingback IRL to be able to defend and attack with equal relish and skill.
The attacking impetus of the wide defender is such that, as we have seen, it encourages managers and coaches to change the structure of the midfield and forward line to make the most of their attacking surges. However, regardless of which formation you use, there is a potential for being hit with a devastating counter attack in wide areas if your wide defender gets caught out in a forward area of the pitch. This is why managers and coaches like their attacking fullbacks and wingbacks to surge forward off the ball on an overlap, overloading one side of the opposition defence, usually because the midfield have dragged the opposition defence into a central area. This means modern wide defenders can really benefit from having great off the ball awareness, and the anticipation to spot a space being made early in a move. Ideally, you want the wide defender to sprint forward into wide space, and only have one or two touches before putting a cross in. The last thing you want is for your attacking wide defender to go on mazy dribbles, taking players on, and risking getting tackled, resulting in a counter attack.
In Football Manager terms, you might think that this means instructing your wide defenders to dribble less. In my experience though, for whatever reason involving how the game engine works, this instruction seems to put wide defenders off getting forward at all. This might be because of how the player instructions fit with team instructions though, and that’s a complex subject worthy of a blog post on its own. Anyway, I usually go with instructing neither more nor less dribbling for fullbacks, leaving it to the default. You can see from the graphics below how my fullback instructions, inside forward instructions, and team instructions combine to create a flowing short-passing game that takes the ball into the middle of the pitch, dragging the opposition with it, so that my fullbacks can spring into space and deliver dangerous crosses. As a result, my fullbacks almost never get tackled in high wide areas, and tend not to give away counter attacks.
Note that one of the peculiarities of Football Manager is that if you line up your wide defender alongside the central defenders, you can choose from all wide defender roles (fullback, defensive fullback, wingback, complete wingback, and inverted wingback), but if you position the wide defender on the same latitude as defensive midfielders, you can only choose the wingback roles. This demonstrates the confusion over what wide defenders do IRL.
In Football Manager, why would you choose to put a wide defender in the complete wingback role? Well, you would probably do that to get a bright green disc for that player on the tactics screen, if that’s what flaps your corner flag. And that would probably mean you’ve got a player who isn’t that great a defender if FM has any internal consistency at all. But I struggle to understand why you would want to play a wide defender who’s not great at defending. Still, every gamer is different, and I’m sure those of you that use the CWB option have your reasons.
The two roles we haven’t touched on much so far are defensive fullbacks and inverted wingbacks. Why would you use either of these, and what do they do anyway?
Any wide defender can be told to play more defensively, of course, and not to go forward, but it is rare in the modern game. Effectively, a defensive fullback is a wide defender playing like a centreback on a defend duty; rarely going forward, and keeping a strong defensive shape with his co-defenders. You might get some joy from this if you are playing, say, a 4-2-4 long ball system. Otherwise, if you insist on keeping a four man back line in defensive mode all the time, you risk inviting lots of pressure on your team.
Of course, it’s also possible to play a defensive fullback on one side of your defence, and play a more attacking wide defender on the other side. These offset formations are quite trendy, and they can work, but you have to remember that no tactical decision happens in a vacuum, and there is a balancing act between defending and attacking. So if you’re going to go non-symmetrical with part of your formation, you’re probably going to have to go non-symmetrical with all areas of your formation if you really want it to work. The vast majority of successful tactical plans are symmetrical for a reason; players understand it easily. Of course, if you’ve got a team full of galacticos, with several maverick geniuses, you can probably get away with whatever you want as long as all the players are familiar with the tactic.
Now to inverted fullbacks. When you think inverted fullbacks, you tend to think of how Pep Guardiola has used wide defenders. He has some outré ideas about what to do with fullbacks when your team is in possession, and he tried to introduce inverted fullback play when he arrived at Man City. It didn’t last long. An inverted fullback is expected to cut into central midfield when the team has possession. Often, width comes from players in the midfield or forward line with central starting positions who break wide in possession. It’s a system that depends on a lot of off-the-ball movement from many players, shuttling the ball and players around the pitch with possession football, in order to drag around and unsettle an inferior opposition. While it can help if an inverted fullback plays on the opposite side to his favoured foot, just playing a left-footed player in a rightback position does not make him an inverted fullback. The inverted fullback is a very specific role, and for it to work, the player has to really understand it, and – yet again I reiterate – no tactical decision happens in a vacuum. You can’t just graft inverted fullbacks into any old formation; everything is interlinked. Again, if you have that team full of galacticos and maverick geniuses, you can get away with anything. But there is a reason you don’t see a lot of IWBs in action, and even Pep struggled to make it work at talent-heavy Man City.
In summary, you can see that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over the terms fullback and wingback. So next time you hear a TV pundit saying “These days all fullbacks have to be wingbacks”, you can say to the telly, “No mate, all fullbacks are required to support the attack. That doesn’t make them wingbacks. Wingback is a unique position that can only exist depending on where other players in the team are positioned.” And you can be sure your mates and / or significant other will be in awe of your analysis of the game. Or more likely they'll tell you to shut up. But you’ll still be right.
In both Football Manager and real life, If you want to use wide defenders successfully in attack, make sure they don’t get tackled upfield. When your side loses possession, you need your fullbacks to be in defence, and you need them to have great positional sense. Then when you get possession, you need them to have great off the ball skill, and to be able to deliver great crosses. They need to have even greater stamina, teamwork and work rate than a box-to-box midfielder, and great anticipation and decision making. When you’ve got that kind of wide defender in a sound tactical plan, things will be looking good for your team.
So, in pre-season I had issues with my world-class striker Mick McGreal and my world-class leftback James Bailey both becoming unhappy on the back of interest from Barcelona and Real Madrid. I had no option but to slap humongous asking prices on them, and eventually the spaniards went away.
Unfortunately, this has all taken a toll on team morale, and it's showing in the first few results of the season...
Still, it's early days, and I'm confident I can pull things around.
The board are still with me, and they're still investing in improving the club...
So, it's a case of getting my head down, and building a few wins.
The next blog will go live when I get to the end of the January transfer window. I'm hoping by than time I'll be challenging for the title, and will have shed a lot of back-up players from the reserves, leaving me with the cash to have a real assault on buying those last few non-SWFC players in the England team.
Until then, may your team be successful, and your game not crash unsaved!